Thursday, 9 May 2013

Harryhausen's Menagerie

Another month, another legend of screen lost. Ray Harryhausen died on May 7th, aged 92. Through a long and prolific career, Harryhausen became a legend in cinema for his pioneering effects work. His own brand of stop-motion animation, Dynamation, gave his work an unmistakeable signature. You can always tell when you’re watching a Harryhausen movie. There are tributes flooding the web right now, from many people far more illustrious than I. However, I wanted to show my appreciation for the great man by showcasing some of my favourite examples of his work. For me, these are the best of Ray’s many creations.

Mythical beings:

Talos (Jason and the Argonauts)

Absolutely my favourite of all Harryhausen’s creations.  The Dynamation technique works better here than in any other instance because we’re dealing with an artificial being. OK, so there were others – Bubo the mechanical owl in Clash of the Titans, for example – but Talos was the one that really gave a sense of huge, mechanical power. The moment when the 
bronze giant begins to moved, almost painfully slowly at first, the metal of his body creaking… just joyous.

The Sown Men (Jason and the Argonauts)
Perhaps the most impressive sequence that Harryhausen animated, this variation on the ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ legend sees the teeth of the Hydra sown on the ground, causing seven living skeletons to spring up. The ensuing battle between Jason’s forces and the skeletons is a masterpiece. Skeleton warriors also appeared in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

The Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)
The Cyclops is a favourite monster from Greek myth, and the version used for this mythical mismatch movie is the greatest take on the creature ever seen on film. The basics are there – a giant with a single huge eye – but interpreted as a demonic beast with cloven hooves and a single horn crowning his one-eyed head.

The Kraken (Clash of the Titans)
There’s no kraken in Greek mythology; this beast should probably be Cetus, the sea monster. No matter, it’s not much like the kraken of Norse legend either. There’s a certain element of the giant squid here, but it’s a very different beast to the classical interpretation of the kraken as a cephalopod or crab-fish. It seem to mix elements of human, reptile, fish and octopus into one vast monster.

Medusa the Gorgon (Clash of the Titans)
Another never-bettered interpretation of a well-known myth. I’ve always felt sorry for the Medusa of mythology, seduced or raped, depending on the version, then transformed into a hideous monster as ‘punishment.’ The Greek gods were a bunch of bastards, they really were. Anyway, Harryhausen’s version of the Gorgon is definitive. Each snake on her head was painstakingly animated with a life of its own. The serpentine looks carries on down her whole scaly body, ending not with legs but with a twitching rattlesnake tail. The Medusa who appeared in the 21st century remake was great, but not a patch on the modelwork that inspired it.


The Mooncalf (First Men in the Moon)
What a fantastic film – based on the novel by H.G. Wells, with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale, and starring Lionel Jeffries.  While the Selenites and their ruler, the Grand Lunar, are fine creations, it’s the mooncalf, a vast, roaring caterpillar, that remains my favourite.

The Martian (War of the Worlds)
In 1950, Harryhausen and his collaborator Willis ‘Obie’ O’Brien began work on an adaptation of another Wells classic, The War of the Worlds. As much as I love George Pal’s 1953 movie, I wish we could have seen Harryhausen’s vision on screen. Thankfully, test footage of his take on the cephalopod Martian still survives.

The Ymir (20 Million Miles to Earth)
The starring creature of Harryhausen’s last monochrome work, the Ymir is a reptilian beast from Venus that crashes to Earth and grows to gigantic size. 20 Million Miles to Earth was a tribute to the work of King Kong animator Obie O’Brien, and the Ymir shares with Kong an expressive, emotional face. Harryhausen would use some of the elements of the Ymir in his Kraken design over twenty years later.

Miraculous animals:

Giant Octopus (It Came from Beneath the Sea)
A 50s B-movie classic, It Came from Beneath the Sea (AKA Monster from Beneath the Sea) was released in double-bills with the zombie movie Creature with the Atom Brain. This is a proper kraken, a huge, many-tentacled beast. The tentacles would later get reused as dinosaur tails!

Giant Crab (Mysterious Island)
One of my favourites due to its astonishing realism. Stop-motion isn’t a medium suited to realism, it’s about spectacle, but sometimes it pulls it off. The crab, of course, was made by animating a real crab’s shell. This movie version of the classic Jules Verne tale also included giant bees, an ammonite or nautiloid, and a Phorusracos terror bird.

Kasim the Baboon (Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger)
Not all of Harryhausen’s creations were monstrous. Prince Kasim is transformed into a baboon by witchcraft, proceeding to spend his time playing chess with Jane Seymour’s Farah. Harryhausen’s animation imbues the baboon with some real humanity.


Rhedosaurus (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms)
The first film to use the true Dynamation technique that allowed stop-motion animation to be inserted into filmed footage, 20,000 Fathoms features an invented dinosaur called the Rhedosaurus. It’s more of a gigantic lizard really, with a sprawling four-legged gait and a forked tongue. Whatever sort of creature it is, it’s a classic monster design. Released in 1953, the film predates Godzilla by a year.

Gwangi (The Valley of Gwangi)
This dappy film is a dinosaur/western mash-up. Gwangi is a Mexican Allosaurus . When he was done with the model, Harryhausen gave it to his five-year-old daughter and it became her favourite doll.

Ceratosaurus and Triceratops (One Million Years BC)
A Hammer classic that was a remake of the rather hopeless 1940 film, One Million Years BC is great fun but scientifically appalling. A bunch of white people in fur leotards have to cope with various prehistoric reptiles  that simply refuse to be extinct when they’re supposed to. The best part is the fight between the Ceratosaurus and the Triceratops, two genera that would never have met, while the cave people fight around them. Other prehistoric reptiles in this film included another Allosaurus, an Archelon, some pterosaurs and a ‘Brontosaurus.’

Everyone should check out the official Ray Harryhausen site too.

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